Saudi forum reveals smart technologies used to enhance pilgrims’ Hajj experience

Interior Minister Prince Abdul Aziz bin Saud bin Naif meets with Hajj security officers in Makkah on Monday. (SPA)
Updated 06 August 2019

Saudi forum reveals smart technologies used to enhance pilgrims’ Hajj experience

  • One technology being operated by the Ministry of Health during this season’s Hajj was a robot that could remotely provide medical consultations and checks
  • Plans are in the pipeline to recycle pilgrims’ waste, especially plastics, into useful materials

MAKKAH: Smart technologies being used and developed in the Kingdom to improve services for Hajj pilgrims were revealed at a forum held in the holy city of Makkah.

Saudi Interior Minister Prince Abdul Aziz bin Saud bin Naif inaugurated the “Advanced Technology Utilization on Hajj – Smart Hajj” gathering on Sunday at Umm Al-Qura University’s King Abdul Aziz Historical Hall.

Among items discussed were latest advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and their applications to health, security, entertainment, traffic and other fields in order to enhance the whole Hajj experience for worshippers.

The minister was accompanied at the forum by head of the Presidency of State Security Abdul Aziz bin Mohammed Al-Howairini, Minister of Hajj and Umrah Dr. Mohammed Saleh bin Taher Benten and president of the General Presidency for the Affairs of the Two Holy Mosques Dr. Abdulrahman Al-Sudais.

Prince Abdul Aziz also toured an exhibition held on the sidelines of the event.   

The forum was organized by the Ministry of Interior’s general department of medical services in collaboration with the ministries responsible for public and state security, Hajj, and health, the National Center for Security Operations (911), the General Directorate of Passports, the National Health Information Center, the Saudi Food and Drug Authority, Umm Al-Qura University, the Saudi Red Crescent Authority and the Holy Makkah Municipality.

“Despite the fact that Makkah will have received some 1.2 million Hajj pilgrims by the first day of the Dhu Al-Hijjah, the daily life of the 1.6 million residents of the holy city went smoothly and unaffectedly,” Benten said in his speech to delegates.

“Today, we have more than 1.5 million pilgrims in Makkah and around 300,000 others in Madinah. Even so, the city has not been disordered and residents have not noticed the big number of visitors that have entered the city.

“Everything is going smoothly, thanks to the efforts being exerted by the Saudi government to make the pilgrims perform their rituals in ease and comfort,” added Benten.

The minister noted that all Hajj visas had been issued electronically, meaning most pilgrims had not needed to visit the Saudi Embassy.

He said his ministry had details on 60 million Muslims who had earlier performed Hajj. “We use this information to better help them through knowing what places they would like to visit and what their desires are. We now have a good data infrastructure which can help us greatly to introduce even better services to pilgrims in the future.”

And the Hajj experience has been hailed by pilgrims. Feedback from last year’s visitors showed 86 percent to be satisfied with the services provided to them, said Benten, who also spoke about some of the latest technologies being used.

“All pilgrim buses are equipped with tracking devices, so we know who the driver is and how much time is needed to transport pilgrims from one point to another. We also know when a bus has stopped due to a technical problem.”

Technology had also helped to monitor accommodation units. “And we have information about all the companies that provide pilgrims with meals and who the workers in those companies are.”

Benten pointed out that plans were in the pipeline to recycle pilgrims’ waste, especially plastics, into useful materials, and develop archeological sites in Makkah and Madinah to improve the Hajj experience.  

Assistant professor of AI at Umm Al-Qura University, Tahani Al-Subait, told Arab News that based on the data gathered to date new smart apps were being developed to serve pilgrims.

“We can create applications in all fields, like health, security, entertainment, traffic, movement of people, etc. AI can be utilized in everything you can imagine. I can’t imagine there is a field where AI cannot be used,” she said.

One technology being operated by the Ministry of Health during this season’s Hajj was a robot that could remotely provide medical consultations and checks.

“A physician in Riyadh, for instance, can provide medical assistance through a robot in the holy sites. The physician can monitor the robot and make it take the patient’s temperature and check their pulse with a stethoscope. The doctor can also give the robot an order to find a specific patient at a specific ward in a hospital in order to examine them,” Al-Subait added.

Rural tourism recovers after months of forced isolation

Updated 10 July 2020

Rural tourism recovers after months of forced isolation

  • Saudis turn to domestic traveling and flock to their nation’s cooler cities and rural areas

TAIF: As Saudi citizens turn to domestic tourism in the country’s summer resorts, adapting to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, rural areas have become targeted by local tourists wishing to get away from the soaring temperatures in most of the Kingdom’s cities.

Visitors are now choosing cold Saudi cities instead of Europe, which they are accustomed to visiting, such as Taif, Al-Baha, and Abha.

COVID-19 has postponed all plans to travel abroad, and attention has now focused on domestic tourism amid strict health protocols in parks, gardens and recreational areas.

Walid Al-Hamidi, vice president of the Tourism Development Council, confirmed to Arab News that Asir, with its facilities and attractions, was ready to receive summer visitors from across the country.

He said that under the directives of Asir's governor, who supervises all activities and events directly and constantly, many committees had been formed to prepare a successful summer tourism season, to optimize the opportunity and allow people to enjoy the exceptional ambiance of Asir.

“A comprehensive tourism plan was set up two years ago, which resulted in a successful Al-Soudah Season with the support of Asir’s Investment Authority,” Al-Hamidi added.

He noted that Asir’s directives aimed this year to build an exceptional tourism model that meets optimal health standards in dealing with COVID-19.

The model is supported by the “Nashama Asir” team — consisting of 4,000 volunteers — who have been trained for months and have all the necessary skills to make the season successful. Their work will continue until the end of the pandemic and throughout the summer.

“Everyone is ready at public facilities, gardens and parks, to serve tourists,” he said, adding “tourists coming from all the over the Kingdom will be welcomed with smiles, enhanced services, and warm welcomes.”

Dr. Sami Al-Obaidi, chairman of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Taif, told Arab News that the tourism sector was the economic backbone of any country or city.

He said that Taif was considered one of the most important tourist cities, given its many attractions  that made it top of any list of places to visit in the Kingdom.

“Suspending travel abroad, and limiting tourism … due to the coronavirus pandemic, makes us, as officials and citizens in Taif, well placed for a beautiful and safe tourism season for Taif’s citizens and visitors,” said Al-Obaidi.

“Meetings are held around the clock, headed by Saad Al-Maimouni, the governor of Taif, with the participation of the relevant authorities.”

He expected all sectors, especially tourism, hospitality and a few other businesses in Taif, to recover to some extent during this season, especially now tourists have already started flocking to the region, with numbers set to increase over the coming weeks.